In 1956, I started high school and among the first courses I took was world history. Being more interested in math and science, it did not receive my devoted attention and, besides, my half-brother was dating my history teacher. Then, one day, my father asked me a question about Socrates and Greek history. Much to my embarrassment, I could not answer the question. I did not even know who Socrates was. My dad responded with a questioning complaint about the history curriculum and the lack of attention to Greek history. I had to respond quickly.
Being reasonably good at math and knowing that my father was born in 1905, I mentally calculated that he started high school about 37 years before me. I responded that I had 40 more years of history to study to include two world wars and the Korean conflict, not to mention the Great Depression and other stuff. Yet the school year was essentially the same length. A choice had to be made about what to include in the curriculum and how much detail to include. Greek history lost.
Ten years later, in 1966, I departed from U.C. Berkeley having completed my formal engineering studies. During the time I was there, the Free Speech Movement was in progress and morphed into the anti-Vietnam movement. I experienced it firsthand. I can tell many anecdotes about it and could argue that its lessons should be studied by college students today in the same level of detail. Then they could better understand the “news.” Of course, I have lived through 50 years more history than they have.
A good question at this time is: “Is the history I lived through knowledge?” How much of it is essential and how much of it can be condensed? In 1900, human knowledge doubled about every 100 years. At the end of World War II, the doubling rate was about 25 years. Today knowledge doubles about every year and it is projected to double every twelve hours. Have you ever watched “The Meyerowitz Stories” with Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Emma Thompson? Do you need to watch it? Do you need to know the title and the cast? This is knowledge, but is it essential knowledge?
What we do as individuals, collectively as humans and integrated as a society need, to know? And how do we acquire the needed knowledge? And how do we acquire the needed knowledge? Closely related is the issue of cost and who foots the bill. What is the value to the individual, to a society, and to humanity?
When I was in high school there were those of us identified or “preselected” to go to college. Other students would go to college but they did not receive “special attention.” Another group of students were identified for technical training as part of their high school so they would be qualified for certain jobs upon graduation. Today we might rebel against such assessments and prequalification since we are all created “equal.” But it does happen.
Consider one of the areas of technical training – automotive mechanic. In the 1950s almost all gasoline powered cars used points and a condenser to control the internal combustion in the engine. Very straight forward, but due to the electrical and mechanical nature of the parts they would wear out. While almost everyone could replace them if needed, adjustment of the new parts required more knowledge, skill, and tools. Enter the automotive mechanic with specialize knowledge.’ Emphasis should be placed on “specialized.”
Today does every automotive mechanic need to be able to adjust the points and condenser? You can search on Google or Amazon and find them for sale, but the number of cars today that need them is diminishing and the knowledge set needed by an automotive mechanic is rapidly changing. The knowledge domain size for the mechanic is evolving and growing in an accelerating fashion. What remains important, what can be forgotten, and how long does it take to acquire the “essential” knowledge? Also, who pays for the learning process, what does it cost, and is it really needed?
Today we hear a lot about automation and artificial intelligence eliminating jobs, an economical concern for both the individual and society. At the individual level we could simple say life-long learning is essential. At the societal level we could say it is an individual responsibility if you want to be employed or provide the means for “re-education and training.” Employed or unemployment, the skill sets all have costs and have to be paid for. What are the costs individually, locally, regionally, nationally and globally? What do we teach people and how do we do it?